The Wendigo in the room: our Columbus Day carnage


Caroline Judd

A student looks at his planner, which indicates that there is no school on Columbus Day. Despite the fact that Columbus brought mostly harm to Indigenous people, many schools still get off school to celebrate his legacy.

The Algonquin people believe in a mythical monster known as the Wendigo. Depicted as a terrifying monster with a ghoulish appearance, the Wendigo is usually associated with heinous acts committed by deranged members of the community. When settlers began to arrive and steal Algonquin land, the Wendigo was blamed for the ensuing ecological and spiritual destruction. Today, when mainstream American culture memorializes Christopher Columbus for his discovery of the New World, to many Natives, he’s emblematic of more than just one man; Columbus and his entourage of colonizers are the Wendigo, leaving death and destruction in their bloodthirsty rampage to enslave and conquer the entire continent.

Students as early as kindergarten are inundated with factual inaccuracies and distortions of how Columbus and the first settlers interacted with Native tribes.”

We learn of the Niña, Pinta and the Santa María, but we do not learn that when Columbus arrived, the Arawak people displayed generosity and kindness, only to be enslaved, kidnapped and brutally murdered because they lacked the weapons to fight back. We learn of the kindness of Squanto but ignore how despotic White settlers continued the legacy of Columbus, murdering and forcibly displacing thousands of Natives in accordance with the doctrine known as Manifest Destiny, which stated that God had granted White people the right to expand throughout the continent.

Interestingly enough, even after White descendants of Columbus stole the land of the Natives and committed physical genocide against them, White men were so enamored by their own superiority that they deemed it necessary to wage cultural genocide as well, to “take the Indian out of the man.” So they did, removing Native students from their reservations and placing them in boarding schools where English was the only language taught and Christianity the only religion practiced. President Andrew Jackson was so convinced of his race’s superiority that in his fifth annual message to Congress, he claimed that, Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, [Natives] must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.” Today, mainstream representations of Native people are relegated to casinos owned and operated by federally recognized tribes, while ignoring the lasting impacts of colonialism such as high rates of poverty, suicide and homelessness.

Looking back on these atrocities, it’s difficult to ascertain the heinous nature of the crimes committed. Many believe “that’s just how things were back then” or that “the ends justify the means.” However, even within the context of early American history, these crimes were indeed heinous. Americans were infuriated by the Boston Massacre, for example, because they specifically disavowed the practice of taking another person’s life, a moral standard in line with Judaeo-Christian principles. Evidently, this double standard didn’t apply if that person had melanin in their skin or belonged to a tribe. In the eyes of settlers, America was “terra nullius,” Latin for “nobody’s land.” The settlers knew that there were people on this land, but they didn’t regard Natives as people; Natives were chattel, extensions of the land that was meant for the White man. Columbus may have been a crusader for the spread of “European morality,” but to suggest that his actions and those of subsequent White settlers upheld traditional values is downright farcical.

Our refusal to even consider the possibility of our ancestors engaging in atrocities stems from our fetishization of the past and reeks of naiveté. We have deified those responsible for creating America as it is today while ignoring their moral failures and inhibitions. Some speculate that revealing the true racism and immorality of the past would lead to a destruction of patriotism and the “American way,” but that isn’t what patriotism is or should be. Refusing to acknowledge the scope of the carnage committed by Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés or Andrew Jackson and proclaiming, “hey, at least America was created and that’s a good thing” is an attitude of jingoism, an unfettered devotion to the identity of America, the attitude that whatever America has done is exceptional and that its failures need not be analyzed in detail. It’s true that not a single person alive today is responsible for the atrocities committed in the past, but nearly every single person living in America has privileged in some fashion due to the subjugation, elimination and expropriation of Natives and their land.

Even in 2018, the lives of Natives across the United States are still not valued as much as the lives of everyone else. They still have to protest against rapacious corporations that seek to extract resources from their sacred land, go about their lives in the face of colonialism’s traumatic history and battle devastating poverty exacerbated by the corruption of the government and the reservation system. Despite these serious issues, American perception and attitudes towards Natives resemble those straight out of a Dickensian novel. The only memorials to Indigenous people are racist sports team mascots and the names of towns inhabited by predominantly White populaces. To resolve the gargantuan structural issues–caused by colonialism–facing Native communities, it begins by treating them with respect. That means we should do away with our racist mascots, racist policies and racist lexicon used to put down Natives. Missouri recognizes Oct. 8 as Columbus Day, but it’s evident that dedicating an extra day to celebrate the misgivings of Columbus is unnecessary, as all of American history is a spectacle of his ideology. We ought to use this day to reflect on the gratuitous violence embedded into American history and seek to understand the perspectives of Natives across the United States. Ultimately, the legend of the Wendigo didn’t die even though many Algonquin people did. Today, the Wendigo is alive and well. Our collective refusal to acknowledge our past and rectify the present only makes this monster stronger.